Does the Creation Account Support Women’s Submission?

Gail Wallace

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Views on women’s submission exist on a continuum, but generally speaking, egalitarians support mutual submission in marriage, and church leadership based on giftedness rather than gender; while complementarians support the unilateral submission of wives to husbands and predominately male church leadership. Both hold the Bible in high regard – the difference comes in interpretation.

A primary argument for unilateral submission is based on the creation account and the fact that Adam was created first. For example, prominent complementarian Wayne Grudem writes that women can’t lead men because “God gave Adam a leadership role when He created him first and Eve second” (2006), and that “God gave men, in general, a disposition that is better suited to teaching and governing in the church…and God gave women, in general, a disposition that inclines more toward a relational, nurturing emphasis” (2009).

When I study the creation account I don’t see how it can possibly support unilateral submission. Here are a few points that lead me to this conclusion. (There are two creation accounts recorded in Genesis and it may be helpful to review them. They can be viewed here and here.)

1. There is no command or instruction about female submission in the creation accounts.

If God wanted to establish male hierarchy and female submission from the start, one would expect to find some supporting evidence in the creation stories. Instead, in Genesis 1:26 and 28 God tells both Adam and Eve to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”. There is no command or instruction for Adam to rule over Eve in Genesis. Once sin enters the world scripture one of the consequences will be male rule (Genesis 3:16), but that was not part of the original plan.

2. There is no indication in the text that the “order of creation” was meant to establish a pattern of female submission.

It’s hard to see the logic of male hierarchy based on the order of creation. If the fact that Adam was created before Eve means that he has authority over her, then it would follow that animals have authority over people – after all, they did come first. If anything, the movement in Genesis 2 is not from superior to inferior, but from incompleteness to completeness. If you apply this reverse order, Eve can be seen as the culmination of creation (another “creation order” argument).  If being born-first was an indicator of God-given authority, we would expect to see that pattern carried forward in the Old Testament. But time and time again the latter born is chosen by God for leadership; for example, consider Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and David.  Arguments based on creation order are problematic.

3. The original phrase translated as “helper suitable” does not indicate submission.

In Genesis 2:18 God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a “helper suitable” for him.” The word translated as “helper” is “ezer”, which comes from Hebrew root words meaning strength and power. The word translated as “suitable” is “kenegdo”, which means facing, corresponding, or equal to. In English “helper” suggests an assistant or subordinate, but the Hebrew doesn’t carry that connotation at all.  In fact, the term is used more than 20 times in the Old Testament to describe a superior helper or someone who comes to the aid of another; usually God. So a better translation is: “I will make him a “strength corresponding to” him, or “a rescue that looks him in the face”. The woman was not created to “help” the man in a subordinate position.

4. God’s desire is that we overcome the consequences of sin, not be bound by them.

There is no evidence for unilateral female submission in Genesis 1-2, but what happens in Genesis 3 does have relevance.  Adam and Eve disobey God, and in verses 14-19 God announces the consequences of their disobedience, including these words to the woman: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Complementarians interpret this disruption in the relationship as God’s divine plan for gender relationships. Egalitarians see this as a consequence of sin and not a pattern to aspire to.  Jesus’ death and resurrection freed us from the results of sin. Why would we choose to live by “the curse” when we can live by the grace ushered in by the triumph of Christ?

There are certainly gender distinctions between men and women (equal doesn’t mean “the same”), but those distinctions are strengths to be used in partnership as men and women share the work of governing and of nurturing. One of my favorite scenes in the movie “The Fellowship of the Ring” is this dialog between Arwen, the elven princess, and the warrior leader Aragorn, where they discuss the best way to rescue the hobbit, Frodo, who is dying from a poisoned knife wound:

Arwen: He’s fading. He’s not going to last. We must get him to my father…
Aragorn: Stay with the hobbits. I’ll send horses for you.
Arwen: I’m the faster rider. I’ll take him.
Aragorn: The road is too dangerous.
Arwen: I do not fear them.
Aragorn: (relinquishing to her) Arwen, ride hard. Don’t look back.

What a great model of the mutuality and partnership between men and women. Aragorn submits to Arwen’s wisdom and together they meet the urgent need of their friend on the basis of giftedness, not gender.

Settling for anything less is to live under the curse, and to deny that Christ’s death on the cross had the power to restore all of God’s creation to its original beauty.

Gail Wallace

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30 Comments

  • Thank you for an excellent exploration of gender in the creation accounts found in the book of Genesis. My studies have focused on the commentary work of St. Augustine and how he made sense of Adam and Eve’s relationship. He clearly saw a hierarchy in the order of creation. He also saw Eve’s role as a “helper” as subordinate. Apparently, he did not consider that God is referred to repeatedly as the “helper” of his people. I think it’s important to recognize that St. Augustine held a very patriarchal view of gender relations before his conversion to Christianity. He also supported slavery. He was a philosopher before his conversion, identifying strongly with Plato’s dualism. Augustine equated man with the spirit and woman with the flesh. Based on this viewpoint, he concluded that just as the spirit must rule the body, men must rule women to prevent society from falling into chaos. This was a very Greco-Roman worldview, and St. Augustine evidently interpreted the Bible through these lenses. Unfortunately, it was this interpretation that served as the foundation for Canon law in the church for centuries. Sadly these views were carried into the Protestant Reformation by John Calvin. Many complementarian theologians today continue to cite Calvin and Augustine as authoritative Bible commentators. For my part, I think that it’s time to stop reading the Bible through the lenses of Greco-Roman cultural norms. Christianity no more supports a male-dominated gender hierarchy than it supports slavery, though sadly it has been misused to justify both. In Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free; we are all one (Galatians 3:28, paraphrased).

    • Bob, that’s a great summary of the historical factors that absolutely factor into this discussion.

      Prior to Eve’s creation, it’s not a stretch to argue that the 1st Adam represented both male and female, just as the 2nd Adam represents both male and female in his redemptive work on our behalf.

      Along this same line of thought, I have found it helpful to see Eve as representing both genders as well. (Irenaeus made a similar connection).

      Eve, the 1st Adam’s Bride, represents the Church, the Bride of the 2nd Adam.

      As Eve was birthed from Adam’s “wounded” side so also the Church is birthed from the wounded side of the 2nd Adam.

      Both Adams were put into a state of death in order that their Bride could be created and have Life (the first Adam’s death being called a “deep sleep”: Gen.2:21).

      The term “Helper” is also used to describe the role of the Holy Spirit who indwells both men and women (as the Bride of Christ). As “Helpers” of our heavenly Bridegroom, we carry out our priestly mission on behalf of our Great High Priest.

      When the apostle Paul references Eden in Ephesians 5:31 and 32, I believe he was reminding husbands that they were to see themselves aligned with Eve, not with Adam. “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church”.

      • Thank you for the encouragement Anne, and thank you also for sharing some wonderful insights about the first and second Adam, and the priesthood of all believers. Amen!

  • “It’s very possible that gender differentiation didn’t come about until the woman was created”.

    I think I agree wholeheartily, especially in light of the recent books by GK Beale and John Walton, both books showing how the Genesis narrative was intended to be read within a Temple Context understanding. When we can begin to see how Adam served within the Garden in a priestly role, consistent with the Priestly/Redemptive theme throughout scripture, suddenly we confirm 2 amazing truths:

    1) Adam’s Priestly roles are NOT gender specific and do not apply to men only.
    2) Adam’s Priestly roles help the Church define the NT Priesthood of ALL believers.

    Therefore, the complementarian argument that limits Adam’s roles to “men only” actually undermines and contradicts the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers.

    Here’s the rest of my argument in the context of a recent Gospel Coalition book review:
    (you can follow the whole conversation here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/review/women_slaves_and_the_gender_debate_a_complementarian_response)

    I wrote: “The presupposition that gender roles are “grounded in the creation narrative” is an argument I find sorely lacking. The unique literary genre of Genesis 1-3, that many scholars are only recently beginning to read with “new interpretive lenses”, gives us a descriptive (not prescriptive) account of Adam’s roles in the Garden. It is imperative that we first correctly understand what the Genesis narrative communicated to the original audience and ONLY THEN can we return to the difficult NT passages to determine what the apostle Paul MAY have been thinking when he said the things he did about women.

    Adam’s roles of “serving and guarding” (described in Genesis 2 prior to the creation of Eve) were High Priestly in nature as he was a “Pattern” of the 2nd Adam, our Great High Priest (Romans 5). GK Beale’s “The Temple and the Church’s Mission” (summarized here: http://spurgeon.wordpress.com) along with John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis 1” both help to bring greater clarity to a “Temple Context” reading/understanding/interpretation of the creation account.

    The traditional and simplistic assumption that Adam’s priestly “roles” were automatically inherited by ALL men and husbands (as complementarians suggest) does not take into account that ONLY the Levites were entrusted with the priestly responsibilities (of serving and guarding) as Adam was. Confining Adam’s priestly roles to the male gender actually undermines the all-inclusive nature of the gospel message which has established the Priesthood of ALL believers (male/female, Jew/Gentile, slave/free).

    Every woman believer (along with her brothers in Christ) is now qualified and called “to serve and protect” in the same priestly fashion as the first Adam did. As a woman in Christ, I am being conformed into the image of the 2nd Adam, my heavenly Bridegroom, and your Bridegroom as well. I am not being conformed into the image of Eve.

    In light of the amazing Temple imagery portrayed in Genesis and echoed again in Revelation, I am convinced that Genesis 1-3 was never intended to be about gender roles. It was intended to be all about REDEMPTION, about the Lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world, and about a portrait of the eternal Temple, the New Jerusalem”.

    • Anne, thanks for taking the time to provide such a detailed explanation of another aspect of this complex portion of scripture. It seems to me that we are too quick to oversimplify passages like this. I have not studied much about Adam’s “priestly roles” and so am looking forward to looking more into this idea. In the reading I have done I’ve learned that many scholars don’t believe Paul was intending to say anything about male hierarchy when he referred to the creation account, but that he was trying to correct heretical teaching. I appreciate your reminder that “Genesis 1-3 was never intended to be about gender roles”. Agree completely!

  • If naming established authority over a person, why is it that Eve even had the right to name Cain in the beginning of Genesis 4? You don’t have to even make it as far as Genesis 5!

    But as silly as some of this crazy complementarian causality can be, I suppose it would just be said that Eve was just continuing to usurp Adam’s authority as previously claimed of her. So we can blame the first murder on Eve somehow, too. If Adam had named Cain, things would have been different, and Cain isn’t even seen as his own moral agent, a victim of superstition that continues to scapegoat women for the sins that the man commits himself. They won’t let you win the argument, and I can’t even keep up with the fantasies they make up.

    Eve had the right to name Cain. People can come up with all the rhetoric they want, but this is stated clearly and is not identified as sinful or improper. All the rest is eisegesis.

  • Does Naming Imply Authority Over?
    Complementarians justify their hierarchical position based on four arguments from Genesis 2, one of which is the argument that the naming process indicated authority in the Old Testament. One writer regards the fact that God named the human race “man” and “not woman” in Genesis 1.26-27 as an indication of God’s intention for male headship. However, God said “let us make” not “let us name.” Furthermore, the word translated as “man” (c.f. asv, esv, kjv, nasb, ylt) in verses 1.26-27, does not refer to the “male” half of humanity. The word, adam in Hebrew, anthropos in Greek, is being used as a collective noun referring to humanity as male and female. This word is translated as either “humans,” “human beings,” “humanity,” or “humankind” (c.f. cev, ceb, gw, ncv, nlt, nrsv, tniv). Even those translations that use the word “man” for adam immediately translate that word collectively as “them” saying: “let them have dominion over” (v.26).
    Acting as name giver, the male “exhibits a quality of discernment,” but his naming does not suggest the exercise of dominion. Phyllis Trible, an internationally known biblical scholar, states “that in order to denote naming, the Hebrew verb “call” must be followed by an actual name.” In Genesis 2.23, the man recognizes her as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh and immediately calls her ‘woman'”. This was his acknowledgment that she was “taken out” him. One obvious fact should stand out: Woman is not a name just as Man is not a name. The male does not actually name the woman Eve until Genesis 3:20, after the Fall. The argument that “naming” in Genesis 1 & 2 supports the hierarchical-complementarian claims is a completely without merit. Source: Dennis Preato

    • That is an important point about Gen 1 and 2, Dennis. As I understand it, the complementarian position held by Grudem asserts that the hierarchy was in place BEFORE the fall. As you’ve pointed out, the “naming as authority” position doesn’t hold water, since there is no specific name given until Genesis 3. I hadn’t thought about this before. Guess I need to add another question to the post – Does naming mean authority?

      • Cyndi, The act of naming does not necessarily imply authority. Hagar did not have authority over God, but she did give God a name – a significant name that has been recorded in Scripture in Genesis 16:13-14.

        • Yes, this uses the “Hebrew naming formula” but it is clear that Hagar has no authority over God. I see this as a hint to dig deeper to see what is going on. Part of the plot of the Pentateuch deals with the personal name of God, but Hagar’s name is not this. So the question is: What is it? I see it as a nickname in this case based on the way God revealed Godself to Hagar.

    • What a great response, Dennis! Thank you for sharing!

  • For me, one of the most painful scenes in the creation/fall accounts is when the man names the woman, just as he once named the animals. It’s the first action taken after God pronounces the consequences of the fall.

    Whatever name you give another other person–liberal, conservative, lazy, eager, dramatic, quiet–influences how you interpret their actions. They are no longer complex. To name someone is to see them as less than fully human.

    I also read into the first creation account creation in the image of a Trinitarian God. It takes both male and female to fully reflect the image of God. When we live in unity/community we best reflect Trinity. It’s important to have both males and females in leadership, working in community and unity, in order to more fully reflect the image of God.

    • Cyndi, I agree that the “naming” has often been taught as an act of authority, but is seems to me that that is reading too much in the text. Could that be just interpretation? I don’t recall any real evidence in the Bible that supports that interpretation, do you? You bring up an important fact by pointing out this doesn’t happen until after the “fall”. Before that, Adam describes her as simply “woman”. It’s interesting that we often find women doing the naming in the Bible – it seems that it is often a mother’s choice (Rachel and Leah, for example). There is also the story where Hagar “names” God – El Roi -in Genesis 16. So to say that naming is an act of God-ordained authority seems like a stretch to me.

      And yes! It takes both male and female to fully reflect God’s image in all areas of life. So let’s keep pushing for better conversations about this.

      • From the IVP Bible Background Commentary – Old Testament on Genesis 3:20:

        “Adam earlier had named the animals, which was a demonstration of his authority over them. Here his naming of Eve suggests Adam’s position of rule, as referred to in verse 16. In the ancient world when one king placed a vassal king on the throne, a new name would often be given to demonstrate the overlord’s dominion. Likewise, when God enters covenant relationships with Abram and Jacob, he changes their names. A final example occurs in the Babylonian account of creation, Enuma Elish, which opens with the situation before heaven and earth were named. The account proceeds to give names, just as God names the things he creates in Genesis 1.”

        So at least some bible interpreters to see a significance within the context of the Creation accounts in the naming.

        • So Mark, do you think “naming” equates to authority? It seems like commentary more than biblical principle. Are there any scriptures you can think of that would put naming on a par with authority? It seems to me that rather than “naming” the examples from creation are more like categories or descriptions rather than names. (As an aside, the covenant with Abraham was also Sarah – God also changed Sarai’s name and He makes it very clear that the covenant was to be carried on specifically through her as well as Abraham – stating it three times in Genesis.)

          • I think the comments already posted address whether or not this event is significant in terms of “authority” and also whether or not it was the intended order from God or something man did on his own.

            In an ancient covenant, there is generally one who has the power and authority to grant something to the one(s) with whom he is making the covenant. (The Roman patron/client system is probably similar in many ways.) In the Abram/Sarai case, God offering the covenant means he is the one in power and authority. By accepting the covenant Abram/Sarai also accept the authority implied and part of the name-change likely has to do with the fact that each time they hear their names, they are reminded of their covenant relationship and responsibilities to God.

          • Mark, I love that last idea you shared, that each time Abram and Sarai heard their God-given names they would have been reminded of their relationship and responsibilities to God. Let us each look to God for his naming of us and respond in that same manner.

        • One thing to see is that there are 3 “Creation/Origins” stories, one starts at Gen 1:1, another at Gen 2:4, and the third at Gen 5:1. How they inter-relate is a long discussion, but I will make some points anyway and skip a lot of the long discussion..

          On the names of the man and woman, Gen 5:2 points out that the God-given names of both the man and the woman are Adam, which means human and so is appropriate. That Adam is seen as a man’s name in English is not really relevant and can mislead you.

          On the naming by the man in Gen 3:20, where is he given authority to do this? The short answer is he is not in the story we have, so if one thinks he has it, it must be assumed, never a good idea. The way I read it is the naming was not authorized, but is the first example of the man ruling over the woman which God warned the woman would happen in Gen 3:16.

          Some claim that Gen 2:23 shows that the man was authorized to name her, when he calls her woman, some translations even translate it as “Woman” trying to indicate that such is a name. But woman is not a name, it is an indication of belonging to a group of humans, man contrasted with woman and that is a point of the verbal word pun. In any case, God uses the term woman in Gen 2:22 so if woman is a name, God gave it to her first.

          • Another point is to recognize the “Hebrew naming formula” where the word “shem” name is used, it IS used in Gen 3:20 so this is a naming event, but it is not used in Gen 2:23 so it should not be seen as a naming event, rather as a classifying event.

          • So interesting, Don! I hadn’t thought of the Genesis 5 event, but that is so important. I think the “naming” event Mark was referring to was in Gen 3, when “Eve” first appears. I think you are right that the Gen 2 account is not a case of naming, but of a general classification being given, as with the animals. It would be sad to think of the Gen 3:20 verse as indicating Adam was already trying to exert “rule” over Eve, but that could very well be. Thanks for weighing in.

        • Considering that Adam naming Even takes place only after the fall, I”m not sure it can tell us much about God’s original, perfect intention for male/female interaction pre-fall. All we get pre-fall is that they have both been given the same mandate to care for creation. Any sense of a man ruling over woman is seen as something negative, part of a sin-filled world. So, in some respects, it seems to me that the question of whether Adam naming Eve established authority is a moot point–because we’re not seeking to emulate the pattern of the world as it is after the fall, but the new way of life that Jesus has called us into.

          • Rachel, I agree that the timing is important here. As I mentioned in the post, I think it is very significant that up until sin entered the picture there are no commands from God to Adam and Eve about hierarchy or submission. Even the statement “your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over rule” in Genesis 3 is worded completely different than God’s other statements about ruling. It is sad to think that Adam’s naming of Eve could have been an attempt to exert authority over here in such a short time period. I would prefer to think it had more to do with realizing she would be the bearer of his children 🙂 And yes, we should be emulating Jesus, who said of earthly hierarchies, especially in the church, “it shall NOT be so among you” (my emphasis!).

      • I don’t think Cyndi was saying the man now had the “authority” to name the woman, but he assumed an authority over her that he did not rightfully have. As God said, the man would rule over the woman, and the man wasted no time in doing just that.

    • I don’t believe that naming someone makes them less than fully human. Much naming is terms of endearment or respect, and parents name their children to show they are indeed people, whereas they would not bother to name their tables or clothing or cutlery.

      • That is a good point, Retha. Giving a description or classification to a species as a’dam did with the animals is not “naming” in my mind. One way of looking at the fact that Adam called the woman Eve is, as you suggest, is that he was delighted with her, not exercising authority. What do you think?

  • This is a great entry and blog! As a social justice scholar (not Biblical scholar) I am grateful for your guiding questions, as they help in providing ways to think about the intersections of scriptural exegesis and gender equality. One of the areas I challenge students on is the difference between gender (social construction) and biological sex (anatomy). This distinction has impact for how we think about our engagement, biases, and language in this work. The complication for me when considering the church, is that we conflate gender and sex, in particular due to the creation narrative. How might this difference impact how we as faithful people think and talk about gender in the church? Might this difference be helpful, cumbersome, or not relevant within the context of the church? What might it provide us when thinking about shifting societal contexts and constructs overtime? What is the danger of conflating (a woman’s) gender with (a female’s) sex in church, family, and social roles?

    • Thanks for this thoughtful and informative reply, Kristin! It is disheartening that we are still having to fight this battle when the church should be leading the way. I think you are exactly right that conflating gender and biological sex is part of the problem, as is not recognizing that gender is primarily a social construct, not a biblical one. I do think the biological differences have some significance that we should consider; especially in the sense that both male and female are needed to fully reflect God’s image in the Church. Thanks for your encouragement – we are hopeful that we can encourage better questions about the impact of restrictive gender roles on the Church. We have to get beyond “should women lead?” Thankfully, there is no doubt in my mind that Jesus was a feminist – otherwise, I would probably not be so committed to bringing change to the Church 🙂

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